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Photo submitted by Daniel Swalm

Justice for Elsie

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Elsie Knutson Moren was born in Skibo Township, a tiny community midway between Brimson and Embarrass, and lived on Minnesota soil all her life. She married in 1914 and moved to Two Harbors, where her husband, Carl, worked at the DM&IR rail yards. She was a homemaker and raised three children until 1926, when at 35 she died of complications of childbirth.

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Moren was born an American citizen, but died and was buried in Lake View Cemetery, a woman without a country -- a non-citizen, said her grandson Daniel Swalm.

"She was essentially a nonperson," Swalm said.

Now, more than eight decades later, Swalm says he's on a quest for justice for Elsie.

Swalm, who grew up in Chisholm, learned of his grandmother's status in 2008 when he took an interest in his family history and requested some documents from the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm. What he found tucked among the papers they sent surprised him. There was an Alien Registration and Declaration of Holdings form for his Grandma Elsie -- a form that foreign nationals were required to fill out.

"She was born in Minnesota," Swalm said, "yet she had to fill out this form."

Determined to find an explanation, he started digging and discovered The Expatriation Act of 1907, a law that stripped women of their American citizenship if they married an unnaturalized immigrant.

To add to this indignity, Swalm said he was distressed to realize that since she had been deemed a non-citizen, his grandmother had also been denied the opportunity to cast a ballot in 1920 when the passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.

"That really frosts me," Swalm said.

Candice Bredbenner, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, is familiar with stories like Elsie's. She based her doctoral dissertation on the Expatriation Act and later turned it into a book, "A Nationality of Her Own." Bredbenner said her fascination with women's citizenship in the early 1900s began after she read a footnote in another book that mentioned the Expatriation Act. Until that point, she said she had never seen the topic in the women's rights or history research she had done, so she started digging deeper.

"I was amazed by the size of the problem," she said.

Bredbenner discovered that the act affected not only women who married immigrants after 1907, but thousands more.

"(The act) was retroactive. That was really the bizarre thing about it," she said, meaning that women who had married foreign-born men decades before the act, were suddenly without citizenship.

She estimates that tens of thousands of women were divested of their citizenship as a result of the act. This development probably didn't affect the day-to-day lives of most women. In fact, some may not have known, said Bredbenner -- until they showed up at their polling place in 1920 to cast their first legal vote.

"Citizenship to women had real political meaning after they got the vote," she said.

A woman's citizenship could be restored, said Bredbenner, but only if her husband became naturalized. Carl, Elsie's husband, came to the U.S. legally and applied for citizenship but was denied because, Swalm said, he had publicly expressed his disapproval of the draft for World War I. He didn't become a citizen until after Elsie died.

Parts of the Expatriation Act were repealed by the Cable Act of 1922, but it wasn't until 1940 that it no longer had an effect on the lives of women, Swalm said. In the meantime, those who were married to foreign nationals and died before 1940, like Elsie, died without citizenship in their homeland.

Swalm said he wants to see that this injustice is made right on behalf of Elsie and her contemporaries. To that end, he has started a Facebook page to increase awareness and he said he's asking that "Congress (legislate) a posthumous restoration of their citizenship," or at the very least, issue an apology.

He said he sees this as a human rights issue about which everyone should be concerned -- one by which many women may have been affected. Swalm said he has spoken to Sen. Al Franken's office. If Elsie's story strikes a chord there, he said he will urge people to contact their legislators, too.

"It seems to me, it's such an easy no-brainer," he said, "and that's right in Congress's wheelhouse."

For more on Elsie's story, see the "Justice for Elsie" Facebook page. Bredbenner's book, A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship, is available on www.amazon.com.

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